SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions against Russia for it.
Ukraine’s new government in Kyiv called the referendum a “circus” directed at gunpoint by Moscow — referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago.
But after the polls closed late Sunday, crowds of ethnic Russians in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, overjoyed at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.
The Crimea referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy.
After 50 per cent of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95 per cent of voters had approved splitting off and joining Russia.
Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.
Russia was expected to face strong sanctions today by the U.S. and Europe over the vote, which could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist.
The Crimean parliament will meet today to formally ask Moscow to be annexed and Crimean lawmakers will fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea’s pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter.
In Moscow, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, suggested that joining Russia was a done deal.
“We understand that for 23 years after Ukraine’s formation as a sovereign state, Crimeans have been waiting for this day,” Naryshkin was quoted as saying by the state ITAR-Tass news agency.
Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could take “from three days to three months,” according to Interfax.
Some residents in Crimea said they feared the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
“It’s like they’re crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan,” said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in Simferopol.
In Sevastopol, the Crimean port where Russia now leases a major naval base from Ukraine for $98 million a year, more than 70 people surged into a polling station in the first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.
Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted that neither Ukraine nor the West would recognize the vote.
“Under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Sunday. “Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”
As soon as the polls closed, the White House again denounced the vote.
“The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence,” it said in a statement. “Russia’s actions are dangerous and destabilizing.”
Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby— the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people. The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant.
On Sunday, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.
“We will not let them advance further into Ukrainian territory,” said Serhiy Kuz, commander of a Ukrainian paratrooper battalion.